By Joshua Handy
     josh@methodhome.com

     Joshua Handy is the senior director of form and function. He heads up both ...
How Design Thrives in an Entrepreneurial Company
                 t method, we see ourselves as a challenger brand. We see...
ENTREPRENEURIALISM




         Trying to raise money for a soap company during the          that they had no money, no in...
A toilet bowl cleaner that’s cute and nontoxic!




                                                  I N N O V AT I O N S...
ENTREPRENEURIALISM




     time, but it means that it’s afforded the same respect                                   think...
It is in recognition of the fast and bumpy ride at method that
we developed the method values (see cards on left). The val...
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method's method - How Design Thrives in an Entrepreneurial Company

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At method, we see ourselves as a challenger brand. We seek to disrupt
business as usual. Our dedication to being entrepreneurial is driven largely
by necessity, due to our small size and limited resources, which have
resulted in steep learning curves and many do-overs. But the rewards have been
many: extraordinary growth and successfully cutting our own path through the banal
world of mass-market cleaning products.

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method's method - How Design Thrives in an Entrepreneurial Company

  1. 1. By Joshua Handy josh@methodhome.com Joshua Handy is the senior director of form and function. He heads up both the industrial design and packaging engineering functions at method products in San Francisco. METHOD’S METHOD “Great ideas. Good luck incorporating them in a real-world corporate design environment.” Some corporate hack commenting on method’s design approach 42 W W W. I N N O V AT I O N J O U R N A L . O R G
  2. 2. How Design Thrives in an Entrepreneurial Company t method, we see ourselves as a challenger brand. We seek to disrupt A business as usual. Our dedication to being entrepreneurial is driven large- ly by necessity, due to our small size and limited resources, which have resulted in steep learning curves and many do-overs. But the rewards have been many: extraordinary growth and successfully cutting our own path through the banal world of mass-market cleaning products. The Back Story From the start, method was conceived as an entrepreneurial organization. Its founding story is the clas- sic “two guys with an idea” cliché. The short version goes like this: Eric Ryan and his roommate Adam Lowry started method in their squalid student flat in San Francisco in 2000. Ryan was the hot-shot advertising account planner, and Lowry was the Stanford-trained environmental chemist, both of them in their 20s. We call them “Style” and “Substance” for short. Their unexpectedly complemen- tary backgrounds laid the foundation for method’s success in the soap business. Rather than relying on any one single product attribute, method products are a combination of effective, healthy formulas with stylish, fun packaging. We make the point that green doesn’t mean compromise; you can have substance and style together. Building a business model for method was the first challenge. Lowry and Ryan ran small- scale tests by filling bottles of cleaning products in their bathtub at home, ambushing super- market store managers at 5:00 am and begging them for shelf space to test the products with consumers in order to get real data. When sales took off unexpectedly, it required the lads to quickly drive around to their friends’ houses and pick up loaned samples for a quick rinse off and refill before heading back to the store with a carton of hot-off-the-press product. (Today we would call that a “MacGyver moment.”) I N N O V AT I O N S U M M E R 2 0 0 9 43
  3. 3. ENTREPRENEURIALISM Trying to raise money for a soap company during the that they had no money, no industry experience and no dis- dot-com boom in San Francisco gets you laughed out of tribution, but wanting Rashid to design an icon that would venture capital offices up and down Sand Hill Road (a road turn the world of dish soap upside down and form the cor- in Menlo Park, CA, known for its concentration of venture nerstone of method’s expansion strategy. After the pitch, capital companies). But after the bubble burst and investors Rashid and I chatted. We were skeptical about method hav- started looking for real companies with real cash flow, the ing the legs for the race they had signed up for, but Rashid method proposition gathered momentum. thought it would be a great test of the power of design to With a fancy-looking business plan backed up with “real” elevate a commoditized object, and he accepted the project. store data, the financing offers flowed in. Lowry and Ryan For method, using design as a strategy paid off. When were under a lot of pressure to raise capital, but they never Lowry and Ryan showed the bottom-dispensing dish-soap wavered in their joint vision for how they wanted to do concept to Target at a meeting they had landed only by business, even if it meant turning away investors. This promising to bring Rashid along, Target placed an order for commitment to doing things our way is probably why the dish soap and the rest of the method line for a chain- method is still around today. wide launch. This big break set method on the path to be The company’s capital raising stories are a part of the $100 million organization it is today—and it cemented method’s lore now. Like the time we were due to close design as a strategic asset. Series B financing on Sept. 11, 2001. (Guess what? We didn’t.) Or the time during a big dinner for investors when it Design Won the War, Now What? was discovered, rather late, that no one had a credit card In talking to other designers from big and small companies that wasn’t maxed out (this is how the company self- alike, one key difference in how we treat design at method financed in the beginning), and our new investors had to seems very clear. At many other companies, designers are contribute a little earlier than expected. always in the position of defending and justifying their work, of having to present their work up and down the corporate Embracing Design as Competitive Advantage hierarchy to facilitate buy-in and acceptance. With seem- Buoyed by the success of a range of all-purpose spray ingly no decision-making authority, designers are often cleaners and an employee count of three, method decided beholden to any VP with a bone to pick. Design at these to take on Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Colgate- companies is seen as a service to marketing, helping them Palmolive (a combined employee count of 349,000) and get bring their marketing vision to life. into the dish soap business. Faced with a category domi- The difference at method is that design is seen as a nated by billion-dollar Goliaths, Lowry and Ryan knew they key contributor to the product strategy. In some cases it couldn’t rely on conventional thinking to succeed and had can play the role of leading the product strategy (such as to find a way to rewrite the rules in order to get noticed. with the bottom-dispensing dish soap). Design isn’t treated Analyzing the competitive set, they were surprised to see as a service at method, and it doesn’t play a subservient how closely aligned everyone was in packaging, formulation role to other core corporate functions. It is not concerned and claims. They realized that using design to differentiate about continually proving its legitimacy. Rather, at method, offered an opportunity to really disrupt the status quo. In design is focused on executing against our obsessions and 2001, they approached Karim Rashid to help reinvent dish being as impactful as possible. soap and bring a fresh point of view to this market. Not having to constantly defend work frees up time and I was product director at Rashid’s studio at the time, and energy that is redirected into doing better, more resolved I still remember the first meeting: Lowry and Ryan explaining work. This doesn’t mean that design gets its way all the 44 W W W. I N N O V AT I O N J O U R N A L . O R G
  4. 4. A toilet bowl cleaner that’s cute and nontoxic! I N N O V AT I O N S U M M E R 2 0 0 9 45
  5. 5. ENTREPRENEURIALISM time, but it means that it’s afforded the same respect thinking on products and ideas. We call and accountability that marketing, operations and these our “Wiki Walls.” They are there accounting have commanded for so long. for everyone to look at, ponder, dis- When design is directly accountable for cuss, add to, meet around and share business success, it behooves design their thoughts with others. to act a little differently than what When we create prototypes of historically has been its role as a new bottles and packaging, we typ- service-oriented function. ically glue magnets to them and At method we see design as stick them to the white board next inherently entrepreneurial. For us, to the rendering, label design, for- design is about being different and mulation direction, brand proposi- better, about being a disruptive chal- tion, consumer letter and competitor lenger to the status quo. The way we product. The Wiki Walls allow every- achieve different and better design is by one to get involved and see what the current extending the intellectual notion of who a designer is thinking is on any of our product or brand initia- to include the entire company—and even beyond to our tives. Many companies have war rooms, but they are often customers and consumers. Yes, we are one of “those” off-limits to non-project team members. At method, our companies that believes in radical, no-holds-barred collab- entire office is our war room. Everyone is expected to have oration. We are idea whores; a good idea is a good idea, an opinion and is welcome to express it. and we are not too choosey about its origin. In order to sup- The key way we think out loud is by making prototypes. port this culture at a tactical level, we have created, adapt- We make prototypes like you wouldn’t believe. We have ed or stolen a number of tools, behaviors and processes. loads of quick meetings around models, white boards and glue guns. We take prototypes home, give them out to our Thinking Out Loud friends and test them on our kids. We find that working like At method, we like to make our thinking explicit, and by that this engages people and leads to rapid decision making. we mean visible and accessible. All method offices have an open plan; no one from the CEO down has an office. This Having Values Will Save Your Ass leads to a noisy work environment, but it also leads to rich The flip side is that for a company overflowing with entre- communication. preneurial spirit, it’s often hard to stop people from con- We move people around a lot and mix them up. This tributing. This sometimes leads to what we euphemistically year, our marketing people sit next to our PR people, who call “late learnings.” There is plenty of boundary spanning sit next to logistics and operations. Our chemists sit next to going on at method, which we encourage, but that some- our packaging engineers; the fragrance developer next to times leads to boundary crashing and outright invasions. If regulatory. Next year it will be different. you aren’t mentally prepared for them, these situations can We put our thinking on our walls to constantly surround leave you feeling disenfranchised and confused. When you ourselves with our work. We probably have 250 feet of invite feedback on such a wide scale, clashes and heated white boards in our offices dedicated to our current best discussions are frequent and inevitable. “We are idea whores; a good idea is a good idea.” 46 W W W. I N N O V AT I O N J O U R N A L . O R G
  6. 6. It is in recognition of the fast and bumpy ride at method that we developed the method values (see cards on left). The values were conceived after a period of rapid growth that led people to worry about the company culture getting lost in a headlong rush to do great work. Highly communicative collaborative environ- ments full of passionate people need tools to help them navigate the often complex, high-pressure interpersonal situations. The values are a group of five characteristics (care, innova- tion, collaboration, keep it weird and what would MacGyver do?) along with corresponding behaviors that are printed on cards, given to every employee and explained openly. They are a reflection of how we think people at method should behave in their jobs and toward each other. The cards give people reminders on how to act and react, and they are extremely helpful in guiding us through difficult situations. Everyone at method is challenged to live the values; it’s something that really works for us. People who exemplify living the values are nominated for awards at our weekly Monday-morning huddles, and might, if they are lucky, win a turkey dinner, or lunch with our VP of operations, Gerry Chesser. The entrepreneurial design-centric environment we have created at method is working. We haven’t quite worked out all the kinks yet, but we keep prototyping and iterating in the spirit of design thinking. Comments like the one at the beginning of this arti- cle make me think that we are on the right track. I believe that the way we do things gives us an advantage in terms of speed and collaboration, which leads to better, faster, more compelling products. As long as our Goliath competitors keep telling themselves that this approach could never work, method will be smiling all the way to the recycling center. ■ © method 2009 I N N O V AT I O N S U M M E R 2 0 0 9 47

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